International Organization

Research Article

Authoritarian Signaling, Mass Audiences, and Nationalist Protest in China

Jessica Chen Weiss

Yale University, New Haven, Conn. E-mail:


How can authoritarian states credibly signal their intentions in international crises? Nationalist, antiforeign protests are one mechanism by which authoritarian leaders can visibly demonstrate their domestic vulnerability. Because protests in authoritarian states are risky and costly to repress, the decision to allow or stifle popular mobilization is informative. The threat of instability demonstrates resolve, and the cost of concession increases the credibility of a tough stance. The danger of instability and escalation increases foreign incentives to make concessions and preserve the status quo. This logic helps explain the pattern of authoritarian tolerance and repression toward nationalist protest. A case study of two U.S.-China crises shows how China's management of anti-American protests affected U.S. beliefs about Chinese resolve.

Jessica Chen Weiss is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Yale University, New Haven, Conn.


  I would like to thank Tom Christensen, Alexandre Debs, Erik Gartzke, Yinan He, Susan Hyde, Iain Johnston, Miles Kahler, Robert Keohane, David Lake, Pierre Landry, Ellen Lust, Jason Lyall, Nikolay Marinov, Helen Milner, Nuno Monteiro, Sam Popkin, Ken Scheve, Branislav Slantchev, Susan Shirk, Alex Thompson, James Vreeland, Jeremy Wallace, participants in the international relations workshop at Yale University, the conference on Anti-Americanism at Princeton University, the Harvard-Princeton China and the World workshop, the Program on International Security Policy workshop at University of Chicago, and two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments. I am grateful to the MacMillan Center at Yale University, the Bradley Foundation at Princeton University, and the University of California Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation for support in conducting this research.